D-Day veteran works to honor lives, deeds of fellow soldiers
National D-Day Memorial dedicated to a day of valor
By JAY CONLEY
The Roanoke Times
June 4, 2001
The phone is always ringing at Bob Slaughter's house. He answers each call the same way, as quickly as possible.
"I usually try to pick it up on the first ring. You never know when someone's going to be a big donor," Slaughter said.
Perhaps the nation's best-known D-Day veteran, Slaughter, 76, has helped raise $14 million, most of it through private donations, to build a memorial to his buddies and the thousands of American and Allied soldiers who died in the June 6, 1944, invasion of France.
Eric Brady / The Roanoke Times
Bob Slaughter has helped raise $14 million to build the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, which he shows here during construction. Slaughter speaks frequently to groups and classes about what he witnessed during the invasion.
The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford is nearly complete. As Slaughter prepares for the memorial's dedication Wednesday, for which President Bush is the keynote speaker, he is trying to stay focused on future fund-raising efforts.
"I think after this event we're going to have a surge in donations," Slaughter said.
The nonprofit National D-Day Memorial Foundation still plans to build a 49,000-square-foot education center next to the memorial and establish an endowment fund to cover operating costs at both facilities. Slaughter is the foundation's chairman.
Over the last few months, as the countdown to the dedication has neared, Slaughter has been inundated with interview requests from print and broadcast media. Newspapers up and down the East Coast have called. Cable television stations such as the History Channel, Discovery Channel and Travel Channel have called. Each one is airing a documentary on D-Day.
Even the Weather Channel, working on a story about wind currents on D-Day, has called Slaughter.
He and other Roanoke veterans were interviewed last year for a British documentary yet to be aired.
"Omaha Beach means death to me," Slaughter said during the program "Bloody Battlefield: Omaha Beach."
Slaughter just returned from that beach last week. He was there as part of a "Dateline NBC" television program that will air at 8 tonight about efforts to chart all of the military equipment that sank in the English Channel during the invasion 57 years ago.
Slaughter burst into the national spotlight in 1994, the year Stephen Ambrose's best-selling book "D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" was published. It included Slaughter's account of what he witnessed on Omaha Beach as well as the oral histories of dozens of other veterans. That same year, to celebrate the invasion's 50th anniversary, Slaughter was asked to walk Omaha Beach with President Clinton.
The phone calls haven't stopped since then. When he's away from home, his wife, Margaret, writes down all of his phone messages.
Slaughter's likable, easygoing manner coupled with his firsthand account of the invasion have made him a popular speaker at civic clubs, church groups, businesses and school classrooms.
He rarely asks for donations outright, but he has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars since 1994 from people who have placed checks in his hand after listening to him speak.
"I just try to be nice to people and see if they respond," Slaughter said.
Richard Burrow, the D-Day foundation's executive director, sums up Slaughter's public speaking abilities in one word: phenomenal.
But just as important to Slaughter as raising operating funds is ensuring that younger generations know about D-Day.
Cave Spring Junior High sixth-grader Breslin Wilson said he was honored to present Slaughter $50 he and his classmates had raised when Slaughter came to their school in April.
Slaughter has visited Teresa Hafee's history class for the last five years. He spoke in simple terms about the invasion.
On D-Day, he told Wilson and about 100 other students, he was in the third wave of Army troops to hit Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast of France. He was a 19-year-old squad leader in Company D of the 116th Infantry of the 29th Division, a participant in the biggest coastal invasion in the history of the world. It was the turning point for Allied victory in World War II.
When he landed on the beach, his 6-foot-5-inch frame sank in water up to his armpits. Just getting to shore was tough enough.
Crossing Omaha Beach to the relative safety of a 10-foot-high seawall under heavy gunfire was nearly suicidal.
"As I watched ... men just died," Slaughter told the class. "I consider myself very fortunate just to be sitting in front of you."
"It was awesome," said Wilson after Slaughter was finished. "I like studying about the wars."
Wilson's history textbook devotes a single paragraph to the D-Day invasion. Slaughter said that's not enough to convey the sheer terror he felt or the horrible memories he has of soldiers around him being cut down by enemy fire.
"We're really lucky to have this man, who is so humble, come talk to us," Hafee said.
The students treated Slaughter like a celebrity. Some brought cameras with them to have their picture taken with him. Several others wanted his autograph.
Slaughter is writing a book about his D-Day experiences and his efforts to build the memorial.
"To watch a friend die was painful, and it was difficult not to dwell on the horrible circumstances," he writes in a draft of the book's final chapter. "But our comrades must be remembered for their deeds, not how they died."
The passage refers to veterans such as himself who buried painful memories of the war for decades, not telling anyone - even family or close friends - what they went through.
That changed for Slaughter in 1987 when he retired from The Roanoke Times. After 42 years of working and raising a family, he finally had more free time to relax, and to think.
D-Day began to invade his dreams at night.
That same year, he came up with the idea of a memorial, and he's been talking about D-Day ever since.
Slaughter conducted hundreds of tours of the memorial while it was under construction, and he'll continue to do that once the memorial opens to the public Thursday. It will then be open Tuesday through Sunday. He'll lead a Daughters of the American Revolution chapter on a tour Friday afternoon.
The 29th Division's reunion starts today in Roanoke, and Slaughter's Army buddies and their families will be among an estimated 20,000 in attendance at the memorial's dedication.
Slaughter expects to have mixed feelings - glad that the memorial is finally complete, yet somber over the memories of his fallen comrades.
"It will be emotional," Slaughter said. "The veteran has seen the reality of what war is like. And this will bring back memories. But I've always been proud of what we did."